Language Laws in Romania

Janos Pentek and Attila Beno


The biggest Hungarian minority in the region of the Carpathian Basin lives in Romanian territory. Due to the many centuries existence of their cultural and language traditions, this minority was able to live through the period (of the Ceauceascu regime) when it was in the greatest danger without any great loss with regard to its language and identitiy. The changes which took place after 1989 still lack the traditions usually associated with a constitutional state and the real acceptance of pluralism in the political culture continues to be absent.  The ideas underlying national exclusiveness and the principles of the homogenous nation-state still characterise sharply the situation in Romania. In most of  the Romanian laws passed in the 1990s the further desire for a total state and the signs of traditional Romanian national policy can be recognised.

The authors draw particular attention to the fact that Romania can be placed among those states which want to guarantee that a single language – i.e. the language of the Romanian majority – has an overridingly dominant status.  This can be seen in the nation-state type resolutions of the country and the dominant official status of the Romanian language. In the model of the nation-state the country’s language policy inevitably serves the ideology of assimilation and the strategy moves closer to the ideals of a “one nation, one language”  basis  for the nation-state. The official status of the language in everyday life is usually taken by local authorities to mean that it is the “public language”; consequently, non-official languages fall into a disadvantageous situation in the context of their public use. In the same way that there is the category of  an “official language” , so there is also a false opposition created by the category of “foreign language”. In all probability the consequence of this is that, for example, in the official terminology of the educational authorities “mother tongue” is a category only applied to minorities; however in the official specifications of higher education a “mother tongue language” falls into the group of foreign languages (or according to another possible interpretation no mention is made of such languages at all). In the political practice of the public authorities, equal opportunities in education are not built on “whose is whose” mother tongue but the “common” official language which is, from the start, discriminative. The national minority languages can only be used in certain “tolerated”  situations but not all forms of manifestation are guaranteed: the basic law provides opportunities to restrict language use and to make disadvantageous differentiations. The plan for the language law that is still in its preparatory stages also indicates that it will serve to defend the Romanian language but will not regulate the relations between the languages used on Romanian territory. The authors of the study also mention that Romania has signed all documents relevant to the protection of minorities and has made a Basic Agreement with Hungary but it has made no attempt to fulfil its international obligations.

The education law which is valid today contains several discriminatory elements and restrictions; for example, certain “national” subjects (history, geography) can only be taught through the medium of  the state language and the final examination can only be conducted using the Romanian language. The law on public administration accepted in 2001 extends the fields of activity in which minority languages can be used – but only in settlements in which the proportion of the minority reaches 20% of the settlement’s total population. However, in such settlements it is usual to find that a disadvantageous situation has been created; this is due to a settlement policy which in earlier years served the process of assimilation. Nevertheless, the law against discrimination passed in 2002 can be assessed as being a considerable step forward given that, amongst other things, it prohibits language discrimination. On a day-to-day  basis public administration on regional and local levels is characterised by efforts to ensure the exclusive use of the Romanian language; at the same time the presence of minority languages is natural in local administration.  The study shows the opportunities for making progress with minority mother tongues in religion, in the workplace, in health institutions and in the media.

Among suggestions for a solution is the idea that rights attached to language use should  be accompanied by laws which carry guarantees. Such guarantees would provide an official stimulus or even a fixed demand that knowledge of the Hungarian language be a condition for holding certain positions of office; with this the prestige of the Hungarian language would be improved and other prejudices would be eroded. Whatever the case, it would be expected that where it can be justified Romanian school children should be taught the Hungarian language (on the basis of it being a local language). In university and other academic institutions Hungarian should at least be recognised as a second foreign language for those whose mother tongue is not Hungarian.

The Hungarian-Romanian bilingualism always exists de facto albeit not de jure. Language rights, which Romanian law is supposed to guarantee, belong to that circle in which they in no way reach the level at which they can be regarded as representing an official bilingualism. In this area the laws are to a considerable extent retricted in their effectiveness in all sorts of ways. Thus they obstruct the real assertion of rights from many angles and frequently the laws themselves are contradictory.  Given local resistance and the existing duality it can be asked what these laws actually represent: outwardly they serve to create a favourable impression internationally but what is the reality for the individual?